Do you work for a department of the Florida government? If yes, did you know that if you send work-related e-mails through personal e-mail accounts that they are public record? Sandra Chance, JD, public-relations-professional-turned-lawyer and executive director for the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, discussed the hot legal issues of the day, including the First Amendment and Florida’s public records and sunshine laws.
The First Amendment
More people can name all of the Simpsons family than the First Amendment? Yes, sadly it’s true. As a public relations professional, it’s imperative that we know all five parts of the First Amendment, and protect and defend it:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of Information (FOI)
The Freedom of Information laws ensure our right of access to government information, meetings and records. They help insure our participatory democracy by allowing us to hold our government officials accountable. It also protects against government abuse, waste and unnecessary bureaucracy. Businesses are the biggest users of FOI.
Open Meetings Law
The Open Meetings Law applies to two or more members of a government board or commission when discussing public business, as well as to private entities when they’ve been delegated governmental decision-making or authority. Open meetings allow the public to learn what’s going on with the organization. All meetings must be noticed and take place in a public place.
The Sunshine Law
The Sunshine Law applies to ANY gathering, whether formal or casual, of two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action will be taken.
There are no exemptions except those specifically outlined in Florida statutes.
Florida Public Record Laws
Florida Constitution provides that the public has the right to know how government officials at all levels use taxpayer dollars and make the decisions affecting their lives. As a result, all state, county and municipal records are open for a personal inspection by any person. All documents in a government agency are public records, such as papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software or other material, regardless of physical form, characteristics or means of transmission.
Sandra made some interesting points, including:
- E-mails created or received by public officials, public employees or private individuals working on official business are subject to law and are open for inspection. This includes e-mails from a home computer or a personal e-mail address.
- Text messages can also be public records.
- Facebook and Twitter can bring possible complications, although cases have not been litigated about this yet. To be safe, store a copy of all posts and tweets. If someone posts something defamatory or profane on your site, it’s still considered a public record. If you remove a defamatory or profane message from a site, you could be violating the First Amendment.
- Make sure your organization has a policy about how long to archive e-mails for public record.
- Also, consider creating a blogging policy. For a legal guide for bloggers, visit www.eff.org/bloggers.
Sandra F. Chance, Esq.